On Game Design: DriveClub and its faults

For all of the problems surrounding Driveclub’s initial launch, it can be difficult to get an objective, critical opinion. While some authors proclaim DriveClub presents the definitive, next-gen racer, touting its graphical prowess, others complain of the games shortcomings, often citing personal dispositions on the games handling model or difficulty. This article instead chooses to take a more critical perspective on Driveclub’s design, ignoring its launch day technical faults and focusing on its intentions. Aspects like reward, punishment, progression and immersion are discussed throughout, and the extent to which DriveClub manages to effectively implement these features is reviewed alongside critical reference to comparable alternative titles, and recommendations for the games ongoing development.

Social Integration

Social integration is gradually becoming of greater and greater significance in contemporary game design. Many video game players report social and interactive factors to be the greatest determinants of recurring video game play, and publishers are looking towards these features as a means of promoting long-term play and popularity. Subsequently, it’s easy to understand why various socially facilitatory functions have seen themselves more frequently introduced into video games over recent years. We’ve seen these functions broaden from their origins in games like Everquest, and World of Warcraft, into other genres such as first-person-shooters and racing games.

Originally labelled #Driveclub, Evolution’s title has its own set of social features to offer its consumers. Clubs can be created for up to six members, and in turn membership confers various benefits within the game. Indeed, club-based gameplay is almost essential in DriveClub as many of the better cars require you to be in a club of a certain level to unlock. Subsequently, this serves as an effective means of forcing people to group together. Typically, providing shared goal orientation promotes group cohesion and on paper this allows a game to attract recurrent play because of resulting social factors; players find themselves coming online more frequently to play with friends and in particular, complete tasks that they couldn’t do alone.

At least, that’s how this functionality traditionally operates. While typical MMORPG environments require that large numbers of players come in order to overcome challenges that can’t be completed individually, Driveclub doesn’t provide any particular group objectives other than an arbitrary experience earning mechanism which takes the form of ones club level. While the more members you have in your club, the easier this is to progress, there’s no reason to interact with one another at any point in time. Play alone or together and you benefit from the shared experience. There’s no incentive to directly play,  or race together as there are no events across single or multiplayer modes that require any significant degree of co-operation. In turn these clubs fail to sufficiently incentivise social interaction or recurrent social gameplay.  This is unlike more successful grouping systems like those featuring in MMORPGs, as their guilds and clans naturally interact with one another, motivated by a desire to complete shared tasks such as Raids and special events and in the end establishes itself as another disappointment for Driveclub. Additionally, the club system limits itself to just 6 members, a decision that relates to intentions to bring facilitate closer bonds between smaller groups of players, but without the significantly incentive, purposeful racing within co-operative gametypes, this is hardly worth the sacrifice of connectivity that facilitating larger clubs of players would have brought to the game.

Ultimately, while you can join a party in Driveclub and even take your friends with you when you play online, there’s no significant benefit to doing so aside any the intrinsic benefit one might get from playing with friends. You unlock cars through club experience of course, but this fuelled merely be being in a club, rather than any particular aspect of interaction. In this respect for all its focus on clubs and social integration, Driveclub essentially fails to offer anything beyond what’s already present in the genre. While the games advertisements pose Driveclub as a racer with a greater emphasis on social racing, it’s no substantially more true than in titles like Gran Turismo, Dirt 2 or Motorstorm. In some ways, Driveclub actually offers less than these games as without heavily customizable online lobbies, there’s no way for you to interact privately with a group of friends, with unique parameters and events.

Despite this, there are some merits to Driveclubs social implementations. Driveclub’s, ‘club’ creator allows you to easily share a livery across a group of racers, and this could be argued to help your group craft a sense of shared identity within the racing world. For those that buy into this experience it’s a means of representing your club to others online, although it could be argued this would have had more impact if there were any purpose to the grouping of players through their interaction. In traditional virtual, social environments wearing a certain guild-badge can become something of a badge of honour, an emblem that can come to carry renown within the games community over time and serve to validate group membership. However without any significant group-tasks to complete to demonstrate your collective racing ability Driveclub’s club mechanics are limited in their propensity to have such an effect. Further still, the club icon designer and livery selector are incredibly restrictive, and the chances are that you will encounter other clubs with very similar emblems and liveries to your own. The effect of crafting a group identity with your club is somewhat diminished then, if it fails to uniquely dissociate you from other individuals online.

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Reward and Punishment

One of Driveclubs selling points takes the form of an experience system. Although not entirely dissimilar to the reputation’ systems of games like Racedriver: GRID, Driveclub’s experience system is more central to the experience. Everything you do, whether it be positive or negative has an influence on the amount of experience you receive. Drive fast, drift, slipstream, beat mid-race challenges and you gain points, crash or go off-track and you lose them. On paper this sounds excellent, consistently rewarding and punishing players where required to moderate player-behaviour into an optimal online racing experience for everyone. Unfortunately however, Driveclub falls short on its implementation and these systems simply don’t work as planned.

The crucial problem is that the rewards aren’t distributed where appropriate, and neither are the punishments. If another racer crashes into you, you lose points. Drift through a turn (effectively taking up more roadspace than is viable in a multi-car race, and slow yourself down in the process) and you gain points. Indeed, you’re much more likely to have the largest number of points in the lobby if you simply take every turn aggressively, hurtling through sideways and hoping for the best, comparatively clean racing offers minuscule rewards, and racers attempting to run clean laps will find themselves constantly punished as others crash into them. Driveclubs experience system had the opportunity to promote positive player behaviour and racing etiquette, but instead the skewed distribution of reward and punishment causes the systems to be largely ignored. Reinforcement only functions if applied with where appropriate, and if I’m punished when I try to avoid collision without drivers, but at the same time punished on unavoidable collisions caused by other drivers, then it doesn’t take long before I simply stop caring, and these systems of reward become ignored all together.

It doesn’t help that these rewards are awfully miniscule, and frankly, not all that rewarding. While as you gain experience you progress towards your next level, the larger quantities of experience stem from completing accolades (e.g. drive 50 miles in a Ferrari), and these feel neither challenging, or rewarding to earn. They do however significantly diminish the aforementioned in-race reward system, as irrespective of your in-race performance you’re liable to earn several thousand points just for taking part. Why would anyone care about the 500 extra points they could earn for clean driving if they earn 10,000 just for taking part? Furthering this problem is what this experience system feeds into, as you gain experience you level up and therefore unlock more vehicles. That’s it though, and many levels merely unlock just one additional vehicle. Unlike games like Gran Turismo where you frequently unlock new cars, it may often take five or more races just to progress one level in Driveclub. Additionally, in many cases these rewards may not be interesting. I touch upon balance a little later, but many of the games vehicles simply aren’t worth driving in their respective categories if you wish to have a chance at first place.

Another problem are the games mid-race challenges. These are assigned by the game, but set by other racers. So for instance the game may ask you to beat a drift score of 2000 on a turn, or stick to a certain racing line for x amount of time. While on paper these micro-challenges sound like they would be an additive that keeps players engaged, the implementation just doesn’t work. When you first start a race the first set of challenges the game decides is suitable are always terribly easy, pitiful scores that require you to for instance, follow the racing line for only 10% of the time it’s available. After completing these initial challenges however the difficulty often spikes to virtually the maximum of what’s possible on that challenge. There’s no system moderating these challenges to your own ability, no effort is made to keep you within your own proximal level of skill and instead these jump from being mind-numbingly boring to largely impractical to complete. This is especially true when on many instances the challenge contrasts the race objective, for instance, attempting to beat a 2000 drift score on a turn is generally not especially conducive to holding a good position, and similarly many of the racing lines suggested, while acceptable are sub-optimal. In many instances the desire to perform well will outweigh the challenges reward, so its simply easier to ignore them, making for another superfluous feature of the games design.

Immersion and Driveclubs mistakes

After watching Driveclub’s initial reveal trailer anyone would think the game is centred around crafting an immersive, club-racing experience, however this is unfortunately not the case. While Driveclub is an aesthetically authentic game, that’s effectively where its immersive qualities end. Evolution have gone to great lengths to integrate their aforementioned experienced based system and there’s no hiding away from it. While the HUD can be removed, there’s no compensatory features to enhance the the sense of immersion. Real world Drivers don’t have a heads up display informing them of their position or lap, but this is conveyed through flags. Features like these lend themselves to the believability of the world that the race exists in, and Driveclub offers no means in which players can accurately gauge position or lap without the HUD, therefore its removal isn’t exactly facilitated. This isn’t a surprise as racing games rarely do offer such function, however it would have been a nice touch, and Driveclub’s default of bombarding you with experience, lap, position, names of other drivers, seems almost counter intuitive to creating an immersive racing experience.

A problem that affects the game more broadly though, is its lack of narrative. No, I don’t hink Driveclub would be improved by a gripping revenge plot line, however what it could benefit from however is some context. There’s seemingly no purpose for racing, no crew manager to guide you through the experience, no particular racing series to win. You race purely for the experience of racing itself. While for some that may be enough, I feel its a shame that the game lacks this contextulasation, leaving players with less incentive to push forward through the entirely generic singleplayer series of events. Games like Grid, Dirt, or and even to some degree Gran Turismo each give you the impression that you’re progressing your career as a race driver, which really added to their games sense of immersion, enabling the player to feel much more engaged in the experience as a result. In comparison Driveclub feels rather bare-bones, a skeleton of a racing game that fails to provide the complete, racing experience.

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Difficulty and Structure

A frequent complaint regards the games difficulty. While some argue the game is too difficult, others argue the opposed, suggesting the former need to ‘get good’. Unfortunately this debate is not quite as clear cut as some would represent. Driveclub is a challenging game, however that in itself is not its problem. Driveclubs problem is not that its challenging, but that its overly punishing, and often counter-intuitive. At the heart of this issue is the games AI and the manner in which they’re banded to the racer. The term ‘banded’ refers to a state of AI in racing games where they adapt to the players race proficiency; drive quickly and they adapt to keep up with you, slowly and they slow down to give you a chance to take positions.

The AI never gives you room to breath. Take first place and you can expect to have not only second but the other ten racers right on your tail. The problem with this is while taking first is often easy, singular, small mistakes lead to the loss of not one, but often eleven positions. Bump into a wall and the AI all scoot past you. It’s as if your racing a hive mind, all stuck on a singular line, whose only goal as a collective is to beat the one race car that’s not a part of their group. Even if you were to take the first few turns in line with world-record time, the AI keep up and don’t allow you to gain any time that would allow you a small safety net. The result is often frustrating, as you find yourself losing first place due to a small mistakes on the sector. Some might argue that this makes for a more engaging racing experience, however for a game that presents itself as offering an arcade middleground between racing simulator, and games like Need for Speed, Driveclub’s difficulty seems counter-intuitive. If the purpose of not having realistic physics and handling is to make the game be easier to pick up, play and enjoy, then it makes little sense to make the games AI relentless, and brutally punishing. Its subsequently easy to understand why many have considered the difficulty frustrating.

Additionally, despite being advertised as a racing game over half of Driveclub’s events involve either drifting, or time trials. While this arguably adds a large amount of content to the game, its more logical to consider it as a method employed in order to pad the games level of content. Indeed, without time trials and drift events Driveclub’s singleplayer component would be over within a small number of hours. This isn’t the problem however, the problem is that these means of padding the game are far greater challenge than the core, racing experience. It becomes more understandable why people find the games difficulty unenjoyable when the games hardest components are the least enjoyable or engaging aspects of the game. Repeating an individual time trial over and over again to hit a gold medal which is about as much fun as it sounds, and while other games allow players that enjoy this activity to partake in it within their own leisure, Driveclub’s forced integration of these modes into its singleplayer events may result in disappointment for anyone hoping for a focused, racing experience.

Balance, Circuit and HUD design

Two final aspects of the games design are two that very heavily influence the experience when you do decide to take to Driveclubs online modes. Balance is particularly crucial within any online racing game that decides to organise their vehicles by performance category. A particular but common problem is that in each class, one or a small number of vehicles stand out and outperform the rest. Indeed Driveclub shares this issue with one or two vehicles outperforming the rest within each category. While that might sound okay, it makes little sense considering the vehicles handling and characteristics are fictional. If Evolution studios had the creative freedom to craft whatever performance they chose for each vehicle, irrespective of real world capability, then why did they not take this opportunity to attempt to moderate the racing performance of same category cars? Racing against eleven of the same vehicle simply isn’t enjoyable, and selecting an alternative for the sake of change isn’t necessarily conducive to an good time either. In many cases the performance differences are quite stark, and vehicles within the same category will outperform others universally, throughout the track.

The second problem with Driveclubs online multiplayer is vehicular collision. To put it simply, players on Driveclub crash into each other, and they do it a lot. However, the direction of causation isn’t quite clear. Is this simply down to poor Driving ettiquette of the playerbase, or the games design? Certainly, the aforementioned systems of reward and punishment play a major role as those who take corners aggressively, smashing into other drivers aren’t punished sufficiently above those that they collide into. However an additional problem may stem from other aspects of the games circuit design; many of Driveclubs tracks are narrow, with blind turns and few landmarks. Additionally the heads up display features a poorly located map, and no viewable driving line. To put it simply, the set of characteristics in play (narrow tracks, blind turns, no learning aids) are actively conducive to a poor quality racing experience, and given these parameters, its no surprise that players consistently smash into each other when they need to make a turn. While it is of course possible to avoid collision (I seem to manage to much more than many others I’ve observed), the appropriate incentive to do so isn’t necessarily there. If you go full speed into a turn on a game like Gran Turismo, or Grid, you lose so much time you won’t see another racer, or in the latters case you wreck your vehicle and permanently sit the race out. In Driveclub however, the invisible walls significantly reduce the punishment you would receive from collision therefore when combined with the aforementioned factors it creates a racing environment where frequent collisions are not only common, but seemingly considered an almost equally viable strategy when compared to learning the tracks and respecting fellow drivers. Quite naturally, this can cause many instances of online racing to result in a less than enjoyable experience; there’s only so many times you can have someone smash into the back of you on the first turn before it gets old.

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Final Thoughts

What I have covered here has been especially critical, however it’s important to acknowledge that despite all of these flaws whether or not an individual enjoys Driveclub is largely dependent on other, more subjective elements. Even if many aspects of the games presentation are underdeveloped, if you take to Driveclub’s handling model then you are very likely to enjoy the game, irrespective of the aforementioned issues. Despite this, it’s also important to note the areas in which Driveclub falls short, and more significantly, where and how the game could improve. Driveclub’s innovative social and progression systems are conceptually flawed, aspects of the game such as its difficulty, feel counter-intuitive to the experience originally advertised, and others such as the systems of reward and punishment during online and offline races feel actively harmful to the concept of crafting enjoyable, online multiplayer racing environments. In many regards these are conceptual flaws that Driveclub’s predecessors have overcome, and its subsequently difficult to understand why this game manages to fall short. In spite of this, no one requires a critic to tell them that Driveclub is an aesthetically stunning racing experience, and its near impossible to accurately convey subjective perceptions of the games handing and gameplay without experiencing it yourself. Many players will enjoy Driveclub simply because its the prettiest racing game on the Playstation 4, however consumers with more broad familiarity with the racing genre may struggle to understand some of the games design missteps, or find themselves disappointed in Driveclubs failure to push the genre forward.

Author: Jozef Kulik

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2 Comments

  1. Sony = lies and overhype that underdelivers.

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  2. The cake is a lie

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